Last month, the Washoe County Sheriff's Office in Reno, Nev., received a call from a concerned citizen. She had discovered Arabic notes written in the margin of a flight manual purchased at a local bookstore. Not long before that, another citizen reported four Middle Eastern men who had moved into a house in the Reno suburbs. None of them seemed to work, and they often stayed up all night. Then there was a report about a suspicious panel truck with no license plate cruising a neighborhood.

As it turned out, the reports concerned innocent activities. The Arabic notations, according to an FBI translator, were a poem. The four Middle-Easterners were students from California communities set up in the house by their parents. The driver of the panel truck had been lazy about registering his vehicle. He got a ticket.

Washoe County citizens aren't paranoid. They've been trained to look for and report the unusual. Most of the reports come to the sheriff's office through members of the Washoe Citizen's Homeland Security Council (CHSC), a citizen's watch group trained by officials in the County Sheriff's Office and community volunteers experienced in law enforcement and security.

At the urging of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), a division of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), local, state and territorial governments across the U.S. are forming similar groups. Called Citizen Corps Councils, the groups train members in emergency preparedness, disaster response, first aid and CPR, fire suppression and search and rescue procedures. According to the Citizen Corps Web site (www.citizencorps.gov/councils/), 52 state and territorial Citizen Corps Councils have been formed. Local governments have formed about 950 councils. All told, these groups serve communities representing 39 percent of the U.S. population — more than 100 million people. Federal funding for Citizen Corps comes under a $35 million DHS grant program set up in November 2002.

Officials in the Washoe County Sheriff's Office began pondering the formation of a citizens' group after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. At that time, the Department of Justice was offering small grants to fund local law enforcement agencies interested in citizen watch groups. Washoe County applied but did not receive one. “We decided to do it on our own,” says James Lopey, Washoe County's operations assistant sheriff.

The sheriff's office formed CHSC in January of 2003 and appointed Lopey to direct the group. The goal was to train citizen volunteers to help law enforcement deal with the challenges posed by terrorism and disaster preparedness. In the event of a terrorist attack in the Washoe County-Reno region — not an outlandish thought, considering the region's tourism business — the citizen volunteers would support law enforcement by staffing the emergency command center, communications center and sheriff's office. They would also help with traffic control around the site. Volunteers with medical training would help set up emergency aid sites. The volunteers would not perform duties related to policing or firefighting.

CHSC doesn't accept everyone who volunteers, however. The sheriff's office screens applicants by checking motor vehicle, misdemeanor and felony records.

Training consists of one two-hour class every week for seven weeks. Lopey teaches the first class, an introduction to Homeland security and the CHSC program. Lawrence Martines, a retired deputy from Los Angeles with experience in the L.A. terrorism unit, teaches two classes about the terrorist threat in the U.S. A retired CIA agent handles a class called “Observation and Threat Recognition.” Retired Army Colonel Thomas Peoples offers a session on weapons of mass destruction. The last session provides two separate courses. In the first hour, a Red Cross representative discusses disaster preparedness. For the second hour, Scott Kabrin, a local businessman, covers Haz-Mat issues.

In 2003, Washoe County trained three classes of 40 volunteers and is currently forming a fourth class — bringing the total CHSC membership to 160.

While Washoe County has organized CHSC on its own nickel, federal funding for such efforts began to flow late last year. During 2004, the sheriff's office will use just under $100,000 in grants from state and federal sources, including FEMA, to help build volunteer programs.

About half of the money will cover the time put in by CHSC trainers and sheriff's office employees, who log overtime hours managing the program.

The other half of the money will help start a Washoe County Community Emergency Response Team (CERT). A federal program administered by FEMA, CERT provides citizens with disaster response training.

CERT programs have been established in more than 867 communities in 48 states, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

In 2003, FEMA's budget for CERT funding totaled $19 million. While 2004 funding has not been announced, FEMA aims to train 400,000 individuals in CERT procedures by the end of 2004.